Philadelphia native Quinzel Washington, 27, fell in love with construction as a child. But when he was ready to enter the working world, he found that joining the field isn’t as easy as walking up to a construction company and getting a job.
During his search for employment, Washington saw that Eastern State Penitentiary’s Masonry Academy was recruiting crew members for a paid training program that would enable him to pursue a union apprenticeship.
“I had zero masonry experience and no connections to the union, but I was looking for a career with longevity that offered good benefits for me and my family. It was clear the pre-apprentice program could put me on that path,” says Washington, who participated in the Masonry Academy in 2021 before securing an apprenticeship with PULLMAN SST, Inc., a masonry and restoration contractor.
“From the academy to the jobsite, the motivation and encouragement I’ve received has been life-changing,” Washington adds. “Everyone is willing to lend a helping hand, teach new techniques, help solve problems, and build each other up mentally. Having that kind of support really fuels my drive to make it in the industry and make my mark on the city.”
Supportive culture growing in the industry
This kind of experience isn’t unique to masonry. Throughout the construction trades, colleagues and leaders — whether they know it or not — are mentors and role models whose influence helps others succeed in the industry.
For Serenity Peterson, a first-year carpentry apprentice with Madison Concrete Construction, one of those people is Layla Bibi of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. Bibi introduced Peterson to the Carpenters’ Apprentice Ready Program (CARP) when she was trying to figure out her plan after high school. CARP, a joint initiative between the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA) and the Carpenters Joint Apprentice Committee (JAC), is a pre-apprentice program that reaches Philadelphians who don’t have any pre-existing trade skills.
“Going through CARP was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that allowed me to kickstart my career in construction and a personal journey toward financial freedom,” says Peterson. “Beyond the program, I look up to Layla as a leader. She encourages me to invest in myself and sets an incredible example of just how valuable African American women are in the field of carpentry.”
Peterson also echoes Washington’s experience with on-the-job support, noting how her bosses and co-workers have made her feel comfortable on the jobsite since day one, as well as how they go out of their way to teach and support her as she continues to learn the ropes.
Relationships that shape workplace and industry culture
For some, supportive professional relationships can fuel personal drive, pushing careers forward. That was the case for Isaiah Labell when he began his carpenter apprenticeship with B. Pietrini & Sons five years ago.
“When I was starting out, I had gotten great hands-on training through CARP but I still had a lot to learn on the job. Fortunately, my foreman noticed me and my work ethic. He could have easily brushed me aside, but instead he took me seriously and gave me chances to learn and prove myself. Seeing him take me seriously helped get others on the job to also give me chances to prove myself as one of the team.”
These types of relationships continue to inspire new leaders for the industry. T.N. Ward Company Superintendent Mike Favors is still motivated by a fellow superintendent who he refers to as his “work dad.”
“He has done a lot for me, and his example showed me where I want to go with my career,” says Favors. “He’s managing projects that are 10 times the size of the jobs I’m working on and for him, it’s like riding a bike. My goal is to get there myself one day.”
A shared responsibility
These examples not only highlight a spirit of collaboration, but also the idea that it’s everyone’s job to help construction professionals and the industry thrive. Benjamin J. Connors, president and CEO of GBCA, is seeing more Philadelphia contractors take serious action to change workplace and jobsite cultures.
“Building up and retaining skilled talent requires more than just providing a good salary and hoping the best show up,” Connors explains. “Contractors recognize that when their workers — from the office to the jobsite — are provided pathways to advance their careers, they are setting themselves and their employees up for success.”
L. Elaine Johnson is a construction leader who takes this to heart. Having been discouraged from pursuing a career in construction decades ago, she walked away from a successful corporate career to finally pursue her passion. When she founded LaPutt Enterprise, LLC, a Philadelphia-based minority business enterprise (MBE) and women business enterprise (WBE) commercial carpentry company, she knew she wanted the organization to support diversity and apprenticeship. Today, she’s delivering on her mission by making a sizeable investment to sponsor carpentry and finishing trades union apprentices.
“As a small business owner, it brings me joy knowing that we’re making a difference in young peoples’ lives,” Johnson says. “I am also extremely fortunate to have the support of more experienced commercial contractors as I continue building my own business. If we all do our part to build up human capital in the industry, everyone can win.”
Visit gbca.com/services/workforce-development for more information about careers in construction.
Byron Lee, Ph.D., GBCA’s senior manager of marketing and communications, works to position GBCA as a leading advocacy organization representing the Philadelphia region’s most skilled and trusted construction professionals.